Wall of Education – The most important thing you’ll ever build!

Andy Barrow mentoring students at a secondary school

I’ve come to imagine your education as a wall. The wall of education that you build throughout your early life at home and in the various different institutions that you attend. Your parents and the numerous teachers that you’ll encounter along the way (as well as countless others) are key to helping you build this wall which is just as well because you wouldn’t know how to otherwise, would you?

Strong foundations

So let’s say you’re building your wall….

You’ll have to start with a strong foundation or the entire thing could collapse or subside right? Sadly, many young people don’t even get this, but that’s another post. So for now, we’ll assume that you’re one of the lucky ones!

You learn to read and write and you gain a basic understanding of numbers. Literacy and numeracy set the platform that you then use to build the first few courses of your wall. Literacy and numeracy area reinforced and you strengthen the base with English and maths. Science also comes along early and you begin to understand about living things, states of matter, sounds and electricity.

Then you stack art, computing, design, technology, and geography on top of those bottom courses. The wonders of technology give you and chance to learn in different ways and you start to discover the amazing size, scale, and diversity of our planet. With history, you learn how those who went before contributed to everything we have today. Languages come too – you’ve barely mastered one, but how cool is it that there are so many others!

Gaining momentum

Music reveals yet another way to express yourself and PE helps you take care of what should be the second most treasured thing you possess – your body – the mode of transport for your mind. (The first.)

Andy's 3Cs ChallengeYou’re really building a head of steam now and your wall of education looks to be flying up. You repeat those initial courses over and over again with ever increasing complexity. You may even feel like you’re ready to add a few variations in. Why not specialise in those main building blocks with chemistry, English literature or perhaps multiple languages? Or something completely new like citizenship or religious studies?

The bulk of your wall is done, but you want to finish it off nicely. You pick a few of the bricks that you like most for the last couple of courses and then maybe your absolute favourite to cap it off. At last, your wall looks awesome! Your parents and teachers can all see the wall and some nice people you’ve never met have even sent you some pieces of paper with letters written on them that apparently means they think so too.

SMASH!

You sit happily on top of your wall. You can see life in front of and you’d say you understand what it’s all about now because “EDUCATION”, right?

Then something strange happens, something you didn’t expect – Life smashes into your lovely wall…. and it shakes!

That interview where you didn’t get the job – Smash.

That time you struggled to get your point across – Smash.

That moment where you couldn’t work effectively in a team – Smash.

That awkward social situation where you didn’t know how to conduct yourself – Smash.

And that time you failed at something and had no idea how to move forward from it, so you just gave up – SMASH.

Where’s the cement?

At first, you think that there is something wrong with the bricks in your wall, but they seem to be fine. In fact, they’re not damaged in the slightest. They just keep falling out of your wall.

Next, you think you may have a duff set of bricks, but it can’t be that. Didn’t everyone get the same ones? Then a few older people with really solid walls start giving you some feedback. They use words and phrases like communication, resilience, teamwork, problem-solving, growth mindset, time management, and emotional intelligence.

You desperately search around for these new bricks. You’ve heard of them before but you can’t recall anyone ever expressly showing them to you… And then finally, you understand. Those “bricks” aren’t bricks at all; they look and feel totally different.

Don’t you find how once you notice something for the first time you start to see it everywhere? Like disabled access in public places, or the lack of it! (But I digress.)

Anyway, you look again at those solid walls, but now you notice something else, something you didn’t see before. All those walls have something holding the bricks together; some kind of glue or… Come on, you know this one. (English brick.) Oh yes, “cement”.

Rebuilding the wall

Now I know this could be interpreted as quite a lazy analogy – Surely, even before you can read and write you already know how to speak and listen? Doesn’t communication run through the entire curriculum? Aren’t the academic subjects the most important foundation in education? They’ll learn the rest as they go along, won’t they?

However, it’s precisely these schools of thought that lead to the massive underselling of soft skills holding back many students in the real world.

How do you expect to foster resilience in young people unless they’re exposed to failure from an early age, then given the tools to deal with and learn from those failures? Where does the ability to compromise and work with others or to confidently move through a room of strangers of different ages and backgrounds come from? And how do you even begin to thrive in that job interview, let alone stand in front of that room full of strangers to deliver a speech or business presentation?

Simply, teaching these soft skills, not as curricular add-ons, but as dedicated lessons that are deemed every bit as important as the core subjects, is how.

Education vs the “real world”

I’ve based one entire career on the ability to work in a team and now communicate with and to others for a living. I’m therefore passionate about young people being able to articulate themselves. What’s the point in spending a major part of your early life learning all these amazing things and not taking the time to develop the skills or confidence to share them?

Andy's teamwork lesson

Employers often perceive young people as lacking character and personality but that isn’t the case at all. Everyone has a personality, you’ll just never see it unless they have the requisite soft skills to let it shine through. And if those young people never had the opportunity to feel pain of failure and receive the necessary encouragement to get back up after they were knocked down in the relatively safe environment of school; how could they possibly have the ability to do the same when they get to this “real world” that us adults are always warning them about, but not future-proofing them for?

Teachers are role models

Now the last thing that I want is to offend any teachers that are reading this blog. This is in no way a critique of what you do or how you teach. I visit many schools and amoften introduced as a special guest. I feel privileged to see students on their best behavior, (because of you) before leaving again at the last bell.

Know that after parents (and sadly over them in some cases) you are the greatest role models that a young person has. I see your passion and desire to be that role model. I also see your frustration when time and resources simply won’t stretch to the things I’m asking for above. Regardless, you do what you do tirelessly every day and you see students at their worst and help them to be their very best.

And to those countless other I mentioned at the top. To the TA’s, coaches, scout leaders, and dance instructors – I see you too and I take my hat off to you all.

My plea to the policy makers

This isn’t a rant; it’s simply a plea to value soft skills as highly as regular subjects in education. I’ve been incredibly lucky to see what can happen when you dedicate time to this and to witness the transformational effects that it has on those students.

Unfortunately, the uncomfortable truth is that it’s only when we give every young person access to sessions like these will we see the true potential of ALL of our young people. Confident, creative, adaptable, selfless, caring young people… Because believe me, they are all of these things and so many more!

By the way, how is your wall looking?

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